Social class in ancient Rome

Social class in ancient Rome

Social class in ancient Rome played a major role in the lives of Romans. Ancient Roman society was hierarchical. Free-born Roman citizens were divided into several classes, both by ancestry and by property. There were also several classes of non-citizens with different legal rights, along with slaves who had none.

Patricians and Plebeians

The broadest division was by ancestry, between patricians, those who could trace their ancestry to the first Senate established by Romulus, [Livy, "Ab Urbe Condita" [ 1:8] ] and plebeians, all other citizens. Originally, all public offices were open only to patricians, and the classes could not intermarry. Contemporary politicians and writers (Coriolanus, for example) in the Kingdom and early Republic thought of plebeians as rabble barely capable of sentient thought. However, the plebeians, by withdrawing their labour, had the power to force change. A series of social struggles (see Conflict of the Orders) saw the "plebs" secede from the city on three occasions, the last in 297 BC, until their demands were met. They won the right to stand for office, the abolition of the intermarriage law, and the office of tribune of the "plebs". This office, founded in 494 BC as a result of a plebeian secession, was the main legal bulwark against the powers of the patrician class. The tribunes originally had the power to protect any plebeian from a patrician magistrate. Later revolts forced the Senate to grant the tribunes additional powers, such as the right to veto legislation. A tribune's person was sacrosanct, and he was obliged to keep an open house at all times while in office.

Following these changes the distinction between patrician and plebeian status became less important. Over time, some patrician families fell on hard times, some plebeian families rose in status, and the composition of the ruling class changed. Some patricians, notably Publius Clodius Pulcher, petitioned to be assigned plebeian status, partly in order to run for the position of tribune but also partly to lessen the patrician tax burden. Rome's growing economic power as a trading nation left many patrician families behind; those that could not adjust to the new commercial realities of Roman society often found themselves in the embarrassing position of having to marry their daughters to wealthier plebeians or even freedmen. A plebeian, such as Marius or Cicero, who was the first of his line to become consul, was known as a "novus homo" ("new man"), and he and his descendants became "nobiles" ("nobles"); however they remained plebeian. Some religious offices remained reserved for patricians, but otherwise the distinction was largely a matter of prestige.

Property-based classes

At the same time, the census divided citizens into six complex classes based on property. The richest were the senatorial class, who were worth at least 1,000,000 "sestertii". Membership of the Senatorial class did not necessarily entail membership of the Senate. The wealth of the Senatorial class was based on ownership of large agricultural estates, and its members were forbidden from enagaging in commercial activity. With a few exceptions, all political posts were filled by men from the Senatorial class. Below them were the "equites" ("equestrians" or "knights"), with 400,000 "sestertii", who could engage in commerce and formed an influential business class. Certain political and quasi-political positions were filled by "equites", including tax farming and, under the Principate, leadership of the Praetorian Guard. Petronius satirizes the wealth of the "equites" class in his "Satyricon", describing a sumptuous dinner party hosted by the disagreeable knight Trimalchio. Below the "equites" were three more classes of property-owning citizens; and lastly the "proletarii", who had no property at all.

Originally the census was to determine military service, with the "equites" those who could afford to maintain a war-horse. The "proletarii" were ineligible to serve until the military reforms of Gaius Marius in 108 BC. During the Republic the census classes also served as Rome's electoral college. Citizens in each class were enrolled in "centuriae" ("centuries"), and in elections each "centuria" cast a single vote; however the higher classes had more centuries, each with fewer members, than the lower, meaning that the votes of the counted for more than the votes of the poor. Voting also took place in class order, and a result declared as soon as a majority was reached, so the "proletarii", who were all enrolled in a single century, rarely got to vote at all.



Freeborn women belonged to the social class of their fathers until marriage, at which time they joined the class of their husband. Freedwomen were able to marry but were barred from marriage with senators or knights and did not join their husband's class. Slaves were not allowed to marry.


The Latin Right, a form of citizenship with fewer rights than full Roman citizenship, was conferred originally on the allied cities of Latium and gradually extended to communities throughout the empire. Latin citizens had rights under Roman law, but not the vote, although their leading magistrates could become full citizens. Free-born foreign subjects were known as "peregrini", and laws existed to govern their conduct and disputes. These distinctions continued until AD 212, when Caracalla extended full Roman citizenship to all free-born men in the empire.


Freedmen ("liberti") were freed slaves, who had a form of Latin Right; their free-born children were full citizens. Their status varied from generation to generation through the Republic; Livy states that freedmen in the Early Republic mainly joined the lower sub-classes of the plebeians, while Juvenal, writing during the Empire when financial considerations alone dictated economic class, describes freedmen who had been accepted into the equestrian class.

Freedmen made up the bulk of the civil service during the early Empire. Many became enormously wealthy as the result of bribes, fraud, or other forms of corruption, or were gifted large estates by the Emperor they served. Other freedmen engaged in commerce, amassing vast fortunes often only rivaled by those of the wealthiest patricians. The majority of freedmen, however, joined the plebeian classes, and often worked as farmers or tradesman.

Although freedmen were not allowed to vote during the Republic and the early Empire, children of freedmen were automatically granted the status of citizen. The Augustan poet Horace was himself the child of a freedman from Venusia in southern Italy.

Many of the Satires of Juvenal contain angry denouncements of the pretensions of wealthy freedmen, some 'with the chalk of the slave market still on their heel'. Although himself the son of a freedman, Juvenal saw these successful men as "nouveaux riches" who were far too ready to show off their (often ill-gotten) wealth.


Slaves ("servi") were for the most part descended from debtors and from prisoners of war, especially women and children captured during sieges and other military campaigns in Italy, Spain, and Carthage. In the later years of the Republic and into the Empire, more slaves came from newly conquered areas of Gaul, Britain, North Africa, the Middle East, and what is now eastern Turkey.

Slaves originally had no rights whatsoever and could be disposed of by their owners at any time. As time went on, however, the Senate and later the emperors enacted legislation meant to protect the lives and health of slaves. However, until slavery was abolished Roman men habitually used their slaves for sexual purposes. Horace, for instance, writes of his love for his young, attractive slaves, and in the epode "Parentis olim" chides Macaenas for eating garlic & onions and forcing his slave of the night to retreat to the edge of the bed. All children born to female slaves were legally slaves, although many testators (Tacitus, among others) freed the slaves whom they believed to be their natural children.


ee also

*Ancient Rome
*Culture of ancient Rome

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